Monday, March 5, 2018

Acts 21:1-16 ”Let the Will of the Lord be done“

Our text  raises an interesting question.  How far should we go  in listening to others before we make a decision that  nobody  will approve of?  
Here we are obviously not talking about  going against a clear moral  matter.  This text does not endorse someone that plans to  go against the explicit moral  will of God. So, we are dealing with a fairly narrow scope.
The issue at hand is that Paul, on a number of occasions was warned not to go to Jerusalem, as the Jews were plotting to kill him, but he  went nevertheless, and against an overwhelming opinion. 

Following the text ….
1 And when we[1] had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. 2 And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. 3 When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo.

Everywhere  Paul goes  the disciples are concerned  about the fact that  Paul  is going  to Jerusalem. When he was at  Cenchrea, the port city nearest to Corinth, he had discovered a plot of the Jews to  kill him as he was then on his way to Jerusalem (20:3).   And he  decided  to  foil their plot by taking another route -  a very roundabout   land journey  north,  through Thessalonica and Philippi and then across  and down to Miletus, which is close to Ephesus. Here  he and his travelling companions  were hoping to  find  a ship  to cross the Mediterranean  sea  towards  Tyre and Caesarea, and eventually on  to Jerusalem. In Acts 20  we saw  that  Paul had  met with the Ephesian elders in Miletus, and after a tearful  farewell,  he sets his sights on Jerusalem.  He says  that he is “constrained  by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem , not knowing what will happen to him there.” He says that the Holy Spirit  testifies to him   in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await him. He knew that he would probably not see the Ephesian elders again  (20:22-25). 

The journey takes Paul  and his travelling companions to the island of Cos, and on to Rhodes  and Patara. At Patara they would  take a ship down to Phoenicia, more than 600 kilometres eastward across the Mediterranean sea, a sea journey of about 5 days. Syria controlled Phoenicia in the Roman period,  and here they landed  at the port of Tyre,  a city well known in the Old Testament. 

Paul and his companions spent seven days in Tyre. Here he does what he always does. He meets with the  Christian  church. There is the wonderful fact that wherever Paul went, he found a Christian community waiting to welcome him. One of the great privileges of belonging to the Church is the fact that no matter where we go we  can find  a  church community.  We have a worldwide  family and friends. The same will happen at  Ptolemais (21:7) and   also  in Caesarea (21:8). Paul’s heart beats for the church of Jesus.  And you  will notice that  in Tyre and Caesarea, just as in Miletus there are  many emotions involved.  

Our key verse is found in v. 14.  Everywhere people are saying   that  Paul is going against counsel  to  Jerusalem, and  so  they literally give him up to the will of God .

Tyre (21:3-7)

The disciples in Tyre  ‘through the Spirit’ warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Everyone knew,  and Paul knew  (cf. 20:22,23) that He would suffer,  if not be killed  there.  Clearly  Paul was very valuable to all these disciples.  It is understandable. They do not want him to die, and they do everything possible to stop him from going. The problem is with that little phrase ‘through the Spirit’. They were telling Paul not to go, ‘through the Spirit’. So then  if what they are  saying is genuinely of the Holy Spirit,  is Paul now  disobedient to the Holy Spirit by resisting their counsel?  How do we understand this?

The answer is that they rightly discerned what the Holy Spirit was saying would happen if  Paul should go to Jerusalem. But their conclusion was not of the Holy Spirit. John Stott says, “The warning was Divine, while the urging was human!” And  so  Paul went  to the next destination… the port of Caesarea. 

Caesarea (21: 7-12)

Caesarea  some 100 kilometres  further south  was  a seaport built by  King Herod the Great  and  at this time it was  also the  provincial capital of Judea.  Here we find a more intense   repetition of what  happened in Tyre (v. 12). A  prophet named Agabus  from  Judea  invokes a graphic warning upon  Paul. We have heard of   him  before, in  Acts  11.   In  the days  when  the apostle Peter   was still  the dominant figure  he  prophesied  that there would a  devastating   famine  throughout the then known world. This led to  the fact  that the church in Antioch sent relief aid  to the brothers living in Judea  (11: 27-30). There is no doubt that this  was a proven a prophet of God, a  man who spoke by the Spirit of God.  Jewish prophets had a certain custom. When words were inadequate, they dramatized their message. There are many instances of this in the Old Testament, for example, Isaiah 20:3-4; Jeremiah 13:1-11; Jeremiah 27:2; Ezekiel 4:1-17 ; Ezekiel 5:1-4; 1 Kings 11:29-31.  Agabus  takes  Paul's belt and binds his own hands and feet, and  tells him : 'This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.'  We know that this prophecy was  fulfilled. 
What is of significance  is that Agabus’s prophecy  was seen  by the church community in Caesarea as a sign that Paul should not go to Jerusalem. It also seems that  Luke and Paul’s other travelling companions  include themselves  in this opinion. (21:12

Paul's interpretation and correct understanding of God's will ( 21:13-16)

14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, "Let the will of the Lord be done." 

What is Paul's conclusion? He knows what will happen, but against all prevailing   counsel  he comes to the opposite conclusion.  What are we to make of this?  The most obvious  answer is that which is provided for  us in the text: 13 Then Paul answered, "What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus." 

What is  Paul’s motive?  He is doing this for the name of the Lord Jesus. You will remember that Jesus faced the same objections from  His team of disciples  when  He went to   the vicinity of Jerusalem  (e.g.  John 11:16). And He, in accordance with prophecy (e.g. Isaiah 53) was killed in Jerusalem. 

Paul  was mastered by One. Therefore we can see that  Paul did not fear  what they  feared. They feared losing  Paul. He was valuable to them, and they could not think their lives  without  him, and so , in one sense  there is a  selfish motive involved here.
In Paul’s  heart there  is the motive of completing  the work that the Lord Jesus had given  Him to do. He was after all, an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. As it is, we will learn that he will not die in Jerusalem, although he will be beaten and abused  (21:32). 
But the Lord Jesus  has a lot more work to do  for Paul  before he takes him home, eventually we believe  in Rome.  And  Paul  will   be  a most useful servant, even  though he  will be in prison.  Just think of the fact that we now  have in hand some of Paul’s  so called prison epistles  — Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.

I will close with a brief survey  of  Paul’s  theology  and  thinking  as a result  of his not listening to his Christian brothers and sisters. I  will  restrict myself to portions of  his letter to the Philippians:

1.     Phil. 1:12-18 :  There were some amongst the  Imperial  Guard who had heard the gospel! It was worth it just for that!  The church  at Tyre and Caesarea wanted Paul  not to  go, but God's will was deeper and profounder.  God had  more work to do  for Paul – from prison, and that would never have  happened   unless Paul went to Jerusalem and unless he was arrested and sent  to a jail in Rome. And what is more   is that  other Christians had become emboldened  to speak the Word without fear because of Paul’s presence and testimony  in this Roman prison.

2.     Phil.  1:20-23:  Remaining alive  for the sake  of simply remaining alive  was no reason for Paul to stay away from  Jerusalem. Paul’s motive was to honour Christ in his body, whether by life  or death.  I am afraid, that modern Christians  make too much  of life for life’s sake –to the point of being idolatrous about life. We desperately want to live as long as we can, because, I suspect we believe that this sad earth is our heaven.  Few   have this  idea in  their  minds that they should die  in the service of Christ.  Few  desire heaven and Christ more  than this life. Paul would rather depart and be with Christ. There is a legitimate  reason however  why Paul wants to stay alive, and that is for the sake of those that  still need his encouragement and  the testimony of his Christlike  example  - see Phil.  1:24

3.     Phil 2:1-11: Paul’s greatest  reflection in his letter to the Philippians  is found here  in  this text in which  he thinks about the life and death of Christ. Christ  went willingly to Jerusalem to offer himself  up as  a sacrifice for us  and  this  humiliation which made no sense to the disciples nor to anyone at the time of His dying was  vindicated  when  He was raised from the dead. Against all popular opinion God exalted Him!  Aren’t you glad today that Christ obeyed God  and not popular opinion, and not even His own  fear in the Garden of Gethsemane?

Let that be sufficient for now. The point we are making is that God had greater plans for Paul than the churches everywhere  where able to conceive or understand.  
And so the big lesson  of Acts 21:1-16  is not   for you to have an excuse to be self- willed. Generally and overwhelmingly speaking  it is important for   all of us to listen to the counsel of our Christian brothers and sisters. The big lesson  here is  that Paul  as an apostle  knew himself to be in the hands of God. And in this specific mission he stands unique. It is not for you  to go now to Jerusalem to  figure out  your future  against  the counsel of your brothers and sisters in the Lord. 

The general principle is that  you must always obey the clear call of the Lord Jesus Christ. And sometimes  (and you better  make sure that this is so!) it means going against popular opinion (Acts 4:19,20).  And when you do that,   for Christ’s  sake, do not  hold  your  Christian family’s differing opinion against them.  And if it is God that is truly calling, and  you perceive that  your church does not  understand  then do not hold them ransom  to your calling. Instead you  go in the Lord's strength  trusting Him alone.  Be extremely careful  however when you choose  such a course.  

[1] Again, note the pronoun  we, as Luke includes himself in the narrative

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